New Testament Canticles 2: Magnificat

Mary Greets Elizabeth; 6th-century Mosaic in Basilica Eufrasiana, Porec, Croatia

Mary Greets Elizabeth; 6th-century Mosaic in Basilica Eufrasiana, Porec, Croatia

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about the first New Testament canticle we meet in the daily office, the Benedictus, the song sung by Zacharias upon the birth of his son, John the Baptist — the last of the prophets. The question had arisen in a small group study how these canticles interact with their historical circumstances.

Each of them is, in its way, keenly political. Each of them speaks of the superabundant greatness of the God of Israel in times when, from an earthly perspective, Israel was not doing so hot. In the morning, we recite (or chant, or sing) the Benedictus which looks at the ministry of John the Baptist, looking forward to the coming Messiah and, ultimately, the Last Days.

The next New Testament canticle is the Magnificat, the song of Mary. This occurs in Luke 1:46-55. It is sung by St Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, when she goes into the hill country of Judaea to visit her relative, Elizabeth — John the Baptist’s mother. And when Mary the Virgin approaches, John the Baptist leaps in the womb of his mother, already fulfilling his prophetic role (the grace of God can act where it pleases!). Elizabeth says

Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord. (Luke 1:42-45 KJV)

Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s words, in the Prayer Book translation (that I have memorised to what seems its ubiquitous chant throughout the Anglican world):

MY soul doth magnify the Lord, / and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded / the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth / all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me; / and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him / throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; / he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, / and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; / and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy / hath holpen his servant Israel;
As he promised to our forefathers, / Abraham and his seed for ever.

This we sing at Evensong, after the work of the day. Here we are closer to the fulfilment of the Promise. Here we see the thankfulness of the Mother of Christ for God’s salvific action in the world.

The political situation is still bleak — but the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Heavens, which her Son would proclaim as being not simply ‘nigh’ (Luke 10:9, 10:11, 21:31) but amongst (or even within) us (Luke 17:21), is an upside down Kingdom.

The general rule throughout history is that God or the gods are on the side of the winners. That’s why they’re winning, after all. Therefore, you keep God or the gods happy if you’re winning, you maintain what the Romans called the pax deorum — the peace of the gods. And if you’re losing, you figure out which god(s) to appease or worship, or at least what you’re doing wrong. Part of conquering a nearby city — back when Rome was an expanding city-state — was to take the shrine or cult statue of the conquered city’s main god, to show that that divinity was now on your own side.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had certainly helped His people to be winners in war as well. Consider the Exodus, the battles of Numbers, the wars of Joshua, the exploits of the Judges, as well as the victories of David and Solomon.

But with St Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord, we are much closer to the Maccabees than we are to the Prophet Moses. You can read the story of the Maccabees in the Deuterocanonical books that bear their names; in 1 Maccabees (the weekday readings for Morning and Evening Prayer in Trinity 23 and 24), we read the traditional account of Jewish resistance to the Greek-Macedonian King Antiochus who wanted to sacrifice to Zeus in the Temple of Jerusalem. As part of their endeavours, they barricaded themselves in the Temple. Later, they liberated Jerusalem from the Greek-Macedonians, and found the Temple overgrown and crumbling. They restored and rededicated it.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, there was enough oil for the Menorah to burn for a single night, but God provided them with fuel for eight nights, which was enough time to consecrate more. That’s the story of Chanukah (which means ‘dedication’ and falls around Christmas). It is a story of a physically small yet highly signficant victory of God’s people.

When Mary visited Elizabeth, Judaea and Galilee were under Roman control, ruled by the client (Edomite) King Herod. Things had not necessarily improved much since the Maccabees — although one could argue that Herod had done good things for the kingdom, culturally and economically. I think, however, that for people like Zachariah, Mary, and Simeon, this was not really the coming of God’s Kingdom as they imagined.

But Jesus, this child of promise — ah. Here, God is faithful not to the strong but to the weak. Not to the winners, not in the upside down Kingdom of the Heavens.

he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.

And then the canticle gets fairly provocative:

He hath put down the might from their seat, / and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

This is, frankly, fiery stuff. A provocation to the established order, whether that order is Romans or King Herod or even the Sadduccees and Pharisees (who weren’t so bad as we imagine them, I think). A call to see beyond the temporary powers of this age, this saeculum, to the great things God is doing even now, if we have eyes to see.

A refusal to settle for the terrible power politics of Rome, a culture of great philosophers and poets and artists and lawgivers as well as of bloodsport, crucifixion, slavery, routine torture, massacres of enemies. In the Son of Mary, God remembers His mercy and ‘hath holpen his servant Israel.’

In the years to come, Mary’s Son Jesus would teach that in the Kingdom of the Heavens the first are last, and the last first. He would tell His disciples that they were not to lord it over each other as the Gentiles do. He would tell people to live as little children.

As we pray Evening Prayer, may the spiritual depth and true provocation of this hymn cause us to reflect on our past day and prepare for the day to come.

~ MJH ~

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